Back to basics for artist's legacy

Artist Lionel Bulmer was a familiar sight drawing and painting on the Suffolk coast. Based in Stowmarket since the 1950s, he and his painter partner Margaret Green were leading members of a drive towards a more joyful approach to art in the seemingly austere post-war years.

Andrew Clarke

Artist Lionel Bulmer was a familiar sight drawing and painting on the Suffolk coast. Based in Stowmarket since the 1950s, he and his painter partner Margaret Green were leading members of a drive towards a more joyful approach to art in the seemingly austere post-war years. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke assesses Lionel Bulmer's legacy as a new London exhibition opens.

In the 21st century, conceptual art would appear to be king. The idea is everything and the execution, in some circles, is regarded of secondary importance. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to find a leading London gallery going back to basics and launching a major retrospective for Suffolk-based artist Lionel Bulmer.

Messum's in Cork Street is celebrating the work of one of the nation's leading draughtsmen. This latest exhibition dates largely from the 1950s and features work created in London, Sussex, the Isle of Wight and Suffolk. Many of the works are intricate pen and ink drawings, some overlaid with colour washes and all capture a flavour of the times they were created.

They are a window onto a past world - a post-war idyll - when people spent fine days and holidays. Lionel Bulmer's fine-nipped creations capture the atmosphere of a world where people, in the words of the then prime minister Harold Macmillan “had never had it so good”.

The fact that all the drawings come from the 1950s reflect the importance attached to drawing as the basis of all good artwork. It was regarded as the foundation for all different types of art - the building blocks of a variety of different disciplines. Lionel Bulmer rejoiced in his ability to draw which many suppose was inherited from his architect father. Certainly it is easy to see an architect's hand in his very precise drawings. His exquisite 1951 drawing of Chelsea Bridge gives away an architect's eye as well as superb draughtsmanship.

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But, drawings executed with a brush with either Chinese ink or water-colours display a more impressionistic approach.

Born in 1919, Lionel Bulmer grew up being encouraged to look carefully at the world around him. Even at a young age he was taken to his father's studio to look at drawings and taken on trips around London admire the wonders of Wren's churches before many were wiped away by the ravages of The Blitz.

At 17 he went to Clapham art school, where he spent two happy years before conscription into the army on the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite being called into active service he still found time to paint and to draw. He would always remember night patrols on Hungerford Bridge, savouring a scene captured by Monet and made even more mysterious by the blackout and by the bombed Thames-side ruins.

On being demobbed, he was accepted into the Royal College of Art, still relocated at Ambleside in the Lake District. Here he found his calling. In the wild landscapes, so beloved by the romantic poets, he worked with a new freedom. The inspiration he found in the landscape was more than matched by his discovery of his life-long soul mate Margaret Green.

Daughter of a stock-taker in a steel plant and secretary of a local art club, Margaret had been raised in West Hartlepool and arrived in a blaze of teenage glory courtesy of every possible plaudit and promotion from her local art school.

From their first meeting Margaret and Lionel had the mutual attraction of two magnets. Soon they were inseparable and, working side by side on sketching trips and on paintings back in the college studio, they set the pattern of shared contentment that would last until Lionel's death in 1992. To their progressively rather distanced friends they were known simply as Margaretandlionel.

Together they had their armour against the world. When the Royal College returned to London's Exhibition Road they enjoyed the freedom to wander in the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum. They were also regular fixtures in the arty pubs of the Fulham Road and relished the raffish creativity of a now-largely-vanished Chelsea.

Margaret and Lionel became part of a great creative melting pot, taking first a small studio in Elm Park Gardens and then another in Lucan Place which Margaret kept until her death in 2003.

Here they set to work, though one of Margaret's many student prizes, a £160 travelling scholarship, funded almost a year of frugal travel through France and Ireland. To support their painting, the partners accepted part-time teaching posts in art schools - Lionel at Kingston and Margaret first at Walthamstow and then at the Royal Academy Schools. Both proved to be inspiring tutors.

Around them, post-war London proved to be an austere, drab, dreary place. Dull utility clothing symbolised the grey uniformity of a stricken country where rationing and shortages made it feel that the war was still being fought.

The bomb sites, the slow reconstruction of London, the quick development of the Cold War made the world seem a hostile place in the late 1940s but it was not a world which could be immediately glimpsed in Lionel Bulmer's work.

Given their own private happiness, and their burgeoning careers, Margaret and Lionel had a sunnier take on the world around them - with poetic images of figures captured in parks and gardens.

As the 1950s dawned and the country got into celebratory mode with the 1951 Festival of Britain, Lionel and Margaret responded with gleeful drawings and paintings which recorded the rebirth of a nation - this co-incided with a desire to look at life beyond London.

They started to take day trips into the Sussex countryside. Recovering that feeling of freedom associated with their days in the Lake District, their paintings exploded with bursts of blue and green. Lionel made immaculate drawings of banks and beaches - often filling two pages of his sketch books with single images that were far too painstakingly evolved to be purely notes for paintings.

Quickly day trips were not enough - they were set on turning a rural bolt-hole into a permanent base.

Fanning out in an arc from London, and covering countless miles in a trusty van which doubled as their travelling studio, they finally found their private eden in West Suffolk - a wreck of a house, near Stowmarket, in a wilderness which, in the late 1950s, cost all of £850. Carving out a rather noble building dating from the Middle Ages, and fastidious with furnishings, they then bulldozed the jungle to plant a French-style paradise of flower, fruit and vegetable beds - which took them a long way towards self-sufficiency and which neither ever tired of painting.

While their hearts lay in their house and garden, and despite the necessity of commuting to London for their teaching work, they enjoyed exploring the coast from Felixstowe to Cromer. Lionel, in particular, liked the anchor of an adult figure in a deckchair set between the sea and a backdrop of fine architecture and amid a sprawl of scampering children.

EADT columnist, art critic and curator Ian Collins knew Lionel Bulmer and Margaret Green well. He said: “They adored the beach at Aldeburgh, with the two lookout towers and the tram-like tracks for hauling fishing boats up and down the shingle.

“But, on discovering Walberswick and Southwold they were hooked, with the resulting flood of canvases suggesting that the two figures were fixtures on the beach and beside the harbour over every high summer between 1960 and 1990. In fact, outdoors was for drawings, watercolours and tiny panel paintings. The big picture was to be produced, side by side and cheek by jowl, back in Buxhall Vale.”

Towards the end of his life Lionel Bulmer's work took on a change of direction after friend and neighbour Fred Dubery pointed out that their work was virtually indistinguishable from one another. It was agreed that one of them had to launch in a radical new direction. Lionel determined that the sea-change should come from him.

Bulmer now flooded his once restrained pictures with vivid hues and ever-more stylised patterning. He experimented with the pointillism of Seurat and then extended his range with more than a nod to Philip Wilson Steer and the English Impressionism which had been created in Southwold and Walberswick in the late1800s.

But, even at the end the basis of his work and his talent lay in his exquisite draughtsmanship - his ability to capture in a collection of well defined lines the world around him. His collection of 1950s works show him at the height of his powers.

Drawings from the estate of Lionel Bulmer runs at Messum's Gallery, Cork Street, London until April 19.

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